Paris has the Louvre, Madrid has the Prado and Florence has the Uffizi. And Guimarães? Well, Guimarães has a corridor made of cardboard boxes in a room above the city’s police station. I walk slowly between the boxes. “It is an interpretation of Barthes’ theory of photography,” explains Andreia Garcia, the pretty young artist who made this installation. “The cardboard represents the abstraction of light and colour.” But of course it does.
This city is likely to be seeing a lot more installations – and probably a fair bit more Barthes – in the coming months. Because like Paris, Madrid and Florence before it, Guimarães, a small city in northern Portugal, has been elected one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2012. It is, in some ways, a surprising choice. As Carlos Martins, chief executive of the city’s 2012 committee, puts it: “Guimarães is nonexistent internationally. Nobody can even say it. Is it Gimaraze? Gueemar-aish?”
I arrive in Guimarães (pronounced, incidentally, Gimar-angsh) on a bright morning in early October and start by taking a walk through the city. If it is unheard of, then this anonymity is unfair. The whole of the old town is a Unesco World Heritage Site and it is every bit as lovely as that laurel would lead you to expect, with towering city walls, winding cobbled alleys and overhanging eaves. In the shade of its early-morning streets, stout elderly ladies hang up washing and buy vegetables from market stalls.
Charming though they are, cobbles are not culture, so I set out to find what of that there is in this capital. Guimarães is considered to be the birthplace of modern Portugal and so, as one might expect, there is a good deal of culture of a historical kind here. There is a castle, a palace, elegant museums and numerous churches (one with its own “uncorrupted saint” who, if truly unchanged in death, must have cut quite a striking figure in life).
But though the town has a great deal of cultural heritage it doesn’t seem to have much of a more current kind. The town has no permanent opera house, only one theatre and, when I arrive, not a single public art gallery. It feels as though the title Capital of Culture – once given to the Athenses and Amsterdams of this world – is now being given in aspiration rather than acknowledgement of a fact.
Then evening falls and I change my mind. For, as the sun sets, the old guard of Portuguese ladies disappears to be replaced by younger Portuguese at the vanguard of European fashion. In skinny jeans and thick glasses they drink, socialise and, in one corner, perform a sweaty dance of capoeira. It is an atmospheric metamorphosis, as though one has been transported from Hampshire to Hoxton.
I learn that the town’s first non-commercial gallery (the Centre for Art and Architecture Affairs) happens to be opening this evening. Encouraged, I walk through now-crowded streets to find it. When I arrive, the sense of metamorphosis is complete. In the gallery’s main hall people with beards and Breton tops drink white wine, while upstairs are installations that include Camus books in cling film and a small pile of rubble. I feel bemused, mildly irritated and immensely cheered: culture does not get much more 2012 than this.
Also at the opening is Carlos Martins, the man who ran Guimarães’s bid for the Capital of Culture title. With his black jeans and thick black glasses he looks more like an artist than the suave eurocrat one might have expected. He defends the awarding of the title of “capital” to his little-known city. “If you understand ‘capital’ as a sum of assets” – which, he says, is what it means in Portuguese – “then we have this kind of capital.”
It is Jesuitical reasoning, but plausible. The town has an impressive 60 or so “cultural associations”, organisations similar to university societies that run events in everything from drama to folk dancing. It is these associations that largely run Guimarães’s cultural calendar, a calendar that, despite the town’s lack of venues, includes internationally regarded festivals of jazz, contemporary dance and theatre.
Of course, no amateur societies, however professional, can ever put on an art display to compete with the Louvre or stage a concert to compete with La Scala. But, says Martins, that is not the point. His town’s aim “is not to pretend to be bigger, it is to use the advantages of being small”. “People will open their houses. We are going to have concerts and plays in people’s homes and in the streets.”
So while there will be international artists playing at Guimarães next year, they will be playing not to an audience of 10,000 in a stadium but to audiences of 10 in someone’s front room, or of hundreds in the town’s streets. And what you lose in acoustic effects and professionalism you will, says Martins, gain in atmosphere.
“If you go to Paris or Rome or Berlin, you know that you can always experience a highly professional level of cultural activity. You buy the tickets and you go but it is more or less predictable. In Guimarães you can see the same singer in a totally different situation. And after one year you may not remember the concert in Paris but you will remember that experience here.”
Which brings us to the cardboard. On the weekend when I visit, some artists in Guimarães have already opened their houses to culture and to tourists. Exhibitions are being held in 41 private rooms across the city, each open house being signalled by a big black balloon. Outside, in the streets I originally thought so lacking in culture, I notice balloons bobbing under almost every eave.
One is tied outside the town’s tiny police station. Inside I find not only the cardboard boxes but also 3-D pictures of Swansea, and Guimarães’ chief of police, Henrique Araújo, who seems delighted by his new neighbours and their exhibition. “It’s charming!” he says, with great enthusiasm. “I like it a lot!”
And so, rather to my surprise, do I. Despite a long-held suspicion of Barthes and a more newly cultivated one of cardboard corridors, the presence of the artist turns something that would have been baffling into something rather fun (albeit still pretty baffling). Later I go to exhibitions that include a blank television, some photographs and one where an old man (possibly an installation; possibly the artist’s grandfather) follows me round, demanding my reaction to each work.
At the end of my first evening I find myself in a beautiful old bar in one of the central squares. Upstairs two artists are performing a dance on an old bridge table. At one point a dancer’s foot nearly grazes the face of a spectator. At another they fumble their steps and they – and the table – look perilously close to falling. But that somehow simply makes it all the more fascinating to watch. Like all the art I see in Guimarães over the weekend, this is not the perfectly executed, carefully choreographed culture of the Louvre and La Scala. It is rather more exciting than that.